Delia lived on the second floor of Eldorado Street. She’d had it all to herself since the day Charlie tripped on the cat and bled to death, his nose broken, face-down on the pantry floor, where she found him on Ash Wednesday. There was still a stain on the linoleum, a grid of black and white squares. The stain was now brown, but had started as almost a pink foam. She’d lifted his head, but refused to look at the sopping wet and foaming eyes, nose, and mouth. “Poor old Chas,” she said, dropping the head and calling the police. An ambulance followed the patrol car, and Charlie Abernathy was carted away in his bathrobe and slippers. He was in the process of fixing himself a short one before breakfast and Delia’s return from the 8 o’clock mass.
Delia declined the offer of riding in the ambulance to St. Joe’s. She made some coffee, filled a pail, then refilled it twice, with ammonia and bleach, and took the string mop to the foaming floor. She turned off the light so she wouldn’t have to see. When she opened the broom closet to fetch the mop, she caught sight of the cat’s eyes. He’d stuffed himself into a corner behind the rag bag, the broom, the carpet sweeper, and all the things that had fallen from the shelf. “Get outta there, you!” she said, but Tuffy didn’t move or even blink. It was only later that day, at cocktail hour, spotting Tuffy scraping against the bars of the radiator, that she put the story together. The cat’s feet were sticky and coated with something that had to have come from Chas, the person he loathed for the vile kicks and snubs that came his way, ever since he arrived at the doorstop of Eldorado and wheedled his way in. Delia loved cats more than anything, even this overweight bastard of a marmalade with double feet.
Life without Chas started with funeral preparations. Delia had gone to so many wakes she knew just what suit (blue with pinstripe), tie (repp), and shirt (pearl white with French cuffs) to bring to Clancy McCarthy, an old friend of Chas’s from the Dominican academy on Atwells Avenue. Clance was just a hair under sixty and had been a Doughboy recruited at the last minute and mustard gassed, so all there was for him was the father’s business on Chalkstone Avenue, a firm the older brother took over and resented having to share, but family is family, and blood thicker than water, being the pressure applied to the eager-beaver Thomas F.
Clancy welcomed Delia (Daley that was) into his cubby, shook her hand, and pushed across the desk the box of Kleenex with the paperwork. (Delia had always been a quiet mouse, but when the jabbering Chas had gone, the first word out of her mouth was “Peace!,” which the cat heard and relaxed his bones in the closet, almost releasing his bowels, but no, he could hold it, as he had for the first two hours since breakfast. His bowl had been filled, as usual, and wetted with a dash of hot coffee, as Delia, his mother, always shared her first cup of instant with him.) The reward for traipsing all the way to Academy Avenue to attend mass was stopping at the A&P for a pound of freshly ground 8 o’Clock coffee and bringing it home to Chas. They drank coffee all day long and it transformed each interval of the day into something like a party, for Chas was retired, but used to a day with intervals, because of his job at the New Haven RR on Exchange Place. Interval one was a morning kiss.
Of course, she missed it, and wasn’t kissing the cat, although she never could prove his role in Chas’s demise. She knew that he was in the vicinity, or came by to check, but not that he was the cause. Tuffy loved the pantry, never knowing what he’d find on the floor: a mint or two, dropped in the dark, as the bag was dumped into a candy dish, a string from a bologna slice, aimed at the garbage pail, but failing to reach its open lips; even a potato peeling could nourish the sad and needy heart of a beast who felt he deserved more because his parents were so divided and enacted their division on his yellow hide.
Were they divided? Only in the cat’s eyes, because of his sense of entitlement and first place. They had been, in their own lives, lovey-dovey from first to last, with this exception, and one other.
After the kiss came breakfast on a silver tray, carried over to where Chas lounged on the couch with The Wall Street Journal covering his face. They ate it side by side, sharing slices of the paper. Interval three, at 10 o’clock sharp, was bathing, and Delia scrubbing his old, rounded back with its pelt of white hairs. The cat always joined them, because he was safe, once his father was in the tub. He liked watching the bath, but not the shaving, because a leg could darken the sky, landing on his head and long-haired back. He was a very large cat with coon roots, and other things unknown.
After carting his clothes to the funeral home, Delia fell to thinking. She stopped at the Castle Spa next door for coffee and a donut, and ignored the conversation of the men to her left and the girls on her right. The cook was too busy at his fry desk to bother her with his chatter. What would life be like (tears collected) without her Chas (dropped on her white gloves and purse)? The talk halted on the girls’ side, as they watched in awe. “Don’t mind me,” Delia said, using a hankie to fob them off, but that attracted the attention of the other side. Delia pulled down the veil on her hat so it covered her nose but left her mouth free to sip and chew. Her thoughts were not bleak, but they were lacking the clarity they’d had before Chas kicked the bucket. That made her laugh, and the girls went back to their concerns, the one closest turning her back on the loony. The girls had been admiring the old lady’s rig: the sharp black coat with beaver collar, matching hat, and velvet shoes with bows. She was a classy dame, so what was she doing in this dump? And why was she crying, and now laughing? Well, who cared, anyway; who the hell cared?
Delia was sniffing their cologne, something cheap by Coty. She was a great senser and had collected everything, because Chas knew everything about her, and was eager for praise and approval. Her vanity was a jewel case of glass jars and knobby stoppers. The effect was doubled by the table’s mirror top. Tuffy liked to plank his bulk there; first spreading out the jars, snifters, pots, ampules, and vesicles into a half moon, never (except once) sending one crashing over the side, but that once was enough. The satiny bedroom still stunk of Arpège, concentrated, acrid, and damped only at the moment when Old Spice was slapped on Chas’s pink and jowly cheeks. The cat remembered; oh, he remembered. He’d lived a long day in the broom closet, after being smacked by the dry mop, accumulating a week’s worth of dust and fumes on his handsome pelt. No amount of licking–only time–could thin the pestilence that tracked him wherever he went, until he found salvation in the bathroom sink, with the drip dropping on his back for as a long as he could take it.
Delia didn’t wear scent, but liked to have it there, because you never knew when a hankie sprayed or stabbed with Joy would save the day, when men with cigars filled the parlor with their musky suits and oiled hair. All the doilies were scooped up and sent to the cleaners, but never the same as when Delia and Kathleen, her mother, had stitched them for Delia’s trousseau. Never the same. Oh, the immaculate heart of that mother, who’d never approved of her younger child’s union with Frank Abernathy’s fatboy son, studying to be a priest, but losing his vocation the second he laid eyes on the gangly doll that was Delia at fifteen. He was twenty-two, and, just ordained deacon, had been sent home to clear his weak lungs of a shadow, and spotted by Delia, helping the nuns in the sacristy. They polished the gold cups, hung the encrusted chasubles and copes, folded the maniples and stoles, and sent the cloths to the laundry for extra starch.
Deacon Charles had the tonsure, but just a coin of skull showed on the crown of his head, massy with kinky red hair. No biretta on earth would ever sit on it, because it grew like Topsy, as he liked to say. No barber could keep up with it.
The hair fell out, most of it, but what was left kept its fiery hue, and received a daily gob of goo that Delia rubbed warm in her hands, before patting, stroking, and fingering into Chas’s huge cranium. He was a big man, and she–although tall–a peanut. That’s what he called her, “Where’s my peanut? I’m hungry for my peanut,” which made Delia’s cheeks flame, to the point of wondering if she should bring it to the attention of Fr. Reilly in her Saturday confession. Was hunger for your legal spouse (they had the papal blessing on the wall) a sin against the Sixth Commandment? Fr. Reilly got a good laugh every week at quarter to four, when Mrs. A pss-pss-pss’d her sins, receiving a short and invariable penance for nothing, piffle. He brought the story home, but the monsignor, a grouchy old coot, told him to just wait till the day he was assigned to hear confessions at the convent. “You ain’t heard nothin’ yet,” said the other cleric, Corny Lynch, getting “Who asked you!” from the irritable pastor–bad stomach, flat feet, psoriasis.
Delia was a pillar of the church, but Chas stopped going for a month of mortal sins, when the pastor decided to print the totals of the year’s offerings (tucked into the numbered and named budget envelopes), and Chas’s name was not at the top, or anywhere near. He had a mind to go over there and pound on their door for an answer, and not the cockamamie story delivered that Sunday, after the “scandal” sheet came out, stapled to the bulletin, with the banns, month’s minds, baptisms, visiting missionaries, the bishop’s news and requests, hours of instructions of engaged couples, children making their first communion, and for those young men and women who heard the calling, and planned to answer. The church, rectory, and school were on Regent Avenue; the convent on Atkins Street. That day, Chas got as far as Berkeley Street, just past the Old Timer’s Tap, when a little bird told him he might find therein companionship and commiseration, which he did.
At home that very day (Delia recalled), as she was dusting the buttons on the rubber plant, she spotted a folded-up fifty under its wobbly pot. Why, when, and what for? were the questions put to the husband, flushed, forgetful, and tipsy. “What’s ailing you?” she said in a never-heard tone, “and who stuck this under that?” waving the fifty and pointing to the rubber plant. Part of the answer she knew: the ponies. Where else would a fifty not be too big a bill? That day, she saw a look come over her husband’s puffy face. His eyes flicked to the side where the windows were, and for a minute (Delia thought) he might be a run for it, and sail, as the word was, out, a popular fix since the crash. “Oh no, you don’t!” she said. “Look at me, Chas. Look me in the eye.”
“Did I ever begrudge you that you would weasel around like this? Whose fool do you think you married? And hand over the bank books.”
She tracked him into his little bedroom and saw, when he showed her, the bills, lined up like soldiers, under his mattress. There were different issues of the same denomination. She thought to peek at the springs, and sure enough, a stack of silver dollars dropped in each coil.
That’s when she thought of the philodendron, the wandering jew, snake plant, the fern, spider, the geranium, jade, the bamboo and family of bonsais in the sunroom. Fifties. Under the sunroom rug, a spread of buffalo nickels. The flat, in short, was lined with currency. The question was wherefore and why. And answered in the parlor with a stiff one for each hand. Tuffy leapt on the hassock, until a foot knocked him off. He was all ears.
The flat was inlaid with cash, inlaid and encrusted, and if Delia had been more of a housekeeper, she’d have found, at the very least, the sheet of bills, but was too skinny and lifeless to flip even the caved-in mattress her husband had kept since seminary days, so whose fault was it? Chas didn’t say this. What he did say was it was a custom from the old days and old country, when bankers were crooks and the banks miles off in the county town. You couldn’t hoof it, and no one had so much as a dog cart or spavined pony.
Why oh why did I ask? thought Delia, knowing as I did what a rogue I married. She went that day to her old maid sister’s on Pleasant Valley Parkway, taking her purse, leaving Tuffy squealing at the door until his father winged him a cushion.
Cried all day, almost as killing a tragedy as this one, and why? she wondered, sipping a second coffee, and even a third, until the hair on the back of her head, pure white, stood on end, and her forehead was licked with a warmish dew.
“You ran away!” the husband of fifty years said upon her return, nine days later–she knew because she’d completed a novena for guidance. No priest was going to get wind of this tale and pass it on. What was the term for a Chas? Miser? No, he liked to spend. They took the train every winter to Miami and up to Sarasota in summer. Avarice–that was worse. And where did he come by all that crisp folding and fresh-minted coin? What was he doing with his time?
Three days a week, he walked with his cane, topcoat, and high-top shoes to Exchange Place to sit in his old office, whiling away the time till cocktail hour, which opened in a downtown saloon, and closed with Delia, sitting on the sofa to watch the sunset and the street lamps frizzling up. A tinkerer, he fixed old clocks: Ansonias, Regulators, and New Havens. He was in love with clocks, and had, in his time, a few dozen–no one kept track, as they circulated between his father’s old dump on Fern Street, his brother’s shack on Longmeadow, and the warren of offices across from the New Haven tracks. He’d even fixed the six-foot wall job, when they hauled it down to put up the big board. That clock was still ticking, waiting for the day when some ward heeler found a spot for it. The Abernathys of Eldorado Street had a cuckoo, a grandfather, four Regulators, and a mantel clock; and the ones that chimed on the hour and the half chimed together, or Chas hauled them down to the basement, with the innards spread out on the floor, picnic table, and old trunks. Tuffy never set foot down there, no matter how fast he skinned out their front door and high-tailed it down–once only finding the cellar door open, which he barreled through, slamming into the work bench, double thick, bolted, and braced. That’s where Chas found him. He’d knocked himself out.
In spite of the hobbies and odd habits–don’t get me started, Delia told herself, ordering a coffee cabinet, as it was lunchtime, and the girls and gents long gone, and the lunch crowd trickling in for their grilled cheese and NY-systems–in spite of all of it, he was a good provider, Chas, a good egg, life of the party. Everybody said so, everybody except her old mother, who, thank God, passed on by the time the last big discovery was made. What did it amount to, the nosy sister wanted to know. In a word–and she’d wormed it out of Chas before slamming the front door–a goodly fraction of their old-age pension in New Haven stock. He’d cashed out, when? Big Sister asked, but Baby Sister was mum. Living with Julia–or Juliana, as she re-christened herself, when consecrated to Opus Dei, and commissioned as a virgin soldier in the pope’s secret army–was no bed of roses. Kathleen had been as devout a married Catholic as could be. But she’d already sacrificed her vocation to the Cistercians to look after her retarded brother when her mother and dad died of grief and overwork. When baby Patrick was run down by the milkman, in one of the first motorized trucks in the city, Kathleen was consoled by the diocesan attorney, friend of the family. Even at forty, Kathleen was picture-perfect, featured every Easter in the Sunday paper in a fresh work of millinery art, as stylish as can be. Sister Julia was God’s blessing on the union–no one ever dreamed of a Delia coming along ten years later, on Christmas Day.
Julia, or Juliana, had one wish–to break out of that den of vanity, because Delia was a beauty like Kathleen, and the older girl the spitting image of her bulldog father, in and out of three convents located in remote places. And came back each time, empty-handed, the dowry and outlay for a new habit gone forever, for Juliana returned in the dowdy skirt-suit she went off in, escorted by the guard nuns, the ones free to travel and face the light of day. So, Opus Dei, that secret society of civilians, was the last chance. And it suited Juliana, smug and righteous as she was.
So, Juliana lorded it over Baby Sister, and tried converting her to the army, but no, Delia was just devout enough; no more could be asked, of that she was certain, and nodded her velvet-hatted head, which brought the soda jerk over for a refill, which she didn’t need, so pay up she did, dropping a quarter (not one of the good ones), which, since uncovered, had been piled up and put aside. Returning from Sister’s, Delia found that Chas had swept the house of the deposits.
Not much else had changed. Each day of the nine, Chas had rung the sister’s doorbell with a bunch of hothouse flowers, a Whitman’s sampler, or greeting card with a mushy verse begging forgiveness, and, last, an invitation to dine out, a gal on each arm, at the K of C, where Chas was a High Knight. No go, even though it was just a communion breakfast. (She had taken the generic Pledge, plus the add-on, not to be present even when spirits were simply in the offing.)
By then, Delia was eager to go home, sad–jaded by the daily scoldings and lectures of Juliana, and her tedious friends, the sodalists and leaguers and laity of various stripes– and knowing no more of what she’d find at home, she went. Met with open arms, tears, and howls of a hurt and insulted cat (pleased to have been fed and watered, and even thrown the odd bit of grill or fish from the take-outs that Chas fed on for the nine-day ordeal, not counting the five feeds taken with cronies).
“Who’s the real sinner?” leapt out of her mouth, when she was relieved of her coat and kit, and had the furry slippers fitted on her tired feet, for she’d walked. It was nice of her to ask, and they ended up teary and forlorn–he because of what he’d done and tried to hide, she due to wrath, a deadly sin, haste, and the matrimonial rupture.
“What were you saving it for?” she asked. He wasn’t saving, he said, just taking it out of circulation. It was, silver and paper, safe from market forces and bank error. It was substance free from rust and flame, safe from insects, flood, and devastation. If needed, there it was. Delia didn’t think to ask if there were others, or what the next step might be. She wasn’t converted, although she’d cleaved to Chas in all else (save one: the roof over Tuffy’s head). And was it revenge for the irksome animal, planking itself, fat and surly, wherever it pleased, and always where Chas was, as if the cat were bent on its project of conversion? This was food for thought, and Delia was a thinker, but first she begged forgiveness for her rash act, and for–say it–letting him down, her Chas. Once lawfully wed, Chas pointed out, there was no easy out, no shying off to the family fort.
Adding, “And why the hell would you want to?” And that got her thinking. And she was thinking still, upon this new grief.
“O, my name is McNamara, I’m the leader of the band.” Kathleen had taught her daughters to despise this barroom ditty, so dear to the hordes of witless greenhorns horning in, once arrived on their coffin ships. Kathleen loved her church and creed, but abhorred the compatriots linked with the snake-killer and the clover. On 17 March, she skipped mass and the sight of green toppers and vests, bowties and socks, and the scourge of a day made over to song and drink, and this aversion rubbed off on Big Sister and Baby.
But, not so much that Baby, removed from the matriarch and first-born hen, begrudged her Chas his revels–not at the club, reserved for the Yankees on the hill–but at the Knights, where the party began after mass, and barreled through revel and ritual feast: communion breakfast, ham and beans, stepdancers, singsongs, toasts, boiled dinner, tableaux by the school children in capes and hats, and gaieties planing into the day that followed, a Lenten ferial.
Delia went to the breakfast and bided her time at home until boiled dinner and tableaux, pinning a sprig of clover to a pretty afternoon dress, sporting a genuine emerald on her ring finger, with the costume choker and brooch.
But now Baby was flooded with the thought of Chas on his day of days. She sat down on a bench in front of the Old Stone Bank.
Go home now, she said to herself. Followed by, Don’t dawdle. Don’t idle the day away. These were signals direct from Daley HQ. Delia had them burned into her head, and ready to wind her up for action: backwards, forwards, round and round. They were just a wisp of their former pungency. That was new, and so was the parade of dalliers –gents, mostly–in hats, topcoats, and canes, who tipped their brim, and a good morning to you, spoken to Delia. She nodded back, as rain dropped from the bleary sky. She felt it on her velvet hat and veiled face. Then lifted the veil to taste it.
“Let the man wear his ring,” she ordered Clancy, when they were ready to close the casket, with Juliana butting in, “Wait a minute!” Delia had insisted on being there to see Chas’s sweet face at rest on his satin pillow. “Don’t let her see,” was Juliana’s word to the undertaker, but Clancy looked to the widow, marching in after him. “She just wants to say good-bye,” he offered to the biddy, working herself up for a blow. Clancy hustled Sister into the powder room, where she could wail and rage in insulated comfort. Even the door was padded.
It was, indeed, time to say farewell, and who was this man, this stiff in a suit, embedded in a box, all dressed up for his last trip?
Through the good works of the stiff, dead as a doornail, lying there with nothing to say for himself, she’d been sharpened up from the frail bubble of immaturity he’d married. He bought her clothes that fit, that were a far cry from the itchy shrouds and flowery bags, shapeless coats and helmet hats forced on her by the hens who ruled the roost. He’d packed her off to a downtown beauty parlor, where they unraveled the braided bun, whose waist-length strands were cut, curled, and tinted. She was chestnut brown and sable black, until they decided that towhead waves, tight as a bathing cap, were the ticket.
He’d scraped off the shell, or bit it off (that made her smile) until there was little left of Daley and everything of something else.
And she’d never thanked him for it, so she thanked him then, homing in to dig out a doughy paw, and kiss it. Cold he was. Going too far, she knew.
And they’d sent the money, rolled or stacked, and then converted to a cashier’s check, to the missions–over Chas’s “dead body,” at first, but giving in was always his finest act. Just think, she’d said, their flat was like a mission box for Lenten sacrifice, and Chas pushing coins and stuffing bills down its slot. It was a lark, or could be, like so many others they’d savored together, turning the odd, hurtful, or wicked moment into a prank, a laugh. She’d been turned herself from the ragbag, stiff-necked, dime-store sister into a lady.
Would she stay that way, now that her maker was gone to his?
That was Clancy, “alley-oop,” tapping her arm, and easing her up by a hand under the elbow. And here was the big cheese monsignor, to say the parting prayer and a whisk of holy water. The pallbearers, Knights in uniform, each with a high feathered hat, to hoist the casket, and sail it over Academy Avenue, to the steps of the church, trailed by the widow and her old-maid sister, up, up, up. They sat in front, escorted down the aisle by a Knight. The church was filled up with cronies, railroad brass, rank and file, army buddies, a sea of hats and black armbands. Chas was rolled in, draped in a flag.
“Good-bye now, say it!” Juliana hissed, but Delia’s lips were sealed, as she offered a silent prayer for the transport of Chas’s shopworn soul. And he was, as they were saying from the pulpit, a good egg, stand-up guy, good soldier, and pillar of the church. Delia laughed at that one, and Juliana stabbed her with an elbow. He was a character is what the cronies said later at the K of C, and later still, at the Old Timers’, when old Delia was snug in her own lonesome bed, after not offering Chas’s room to Big Sister. “Don’t forget,” she said, “your allergies.”
Tuffy had spent his day alone, and things were so different that he couldn’t get himself comfortable, no matter where he planked his roomy hide, and pretty cat face. He tried both beds, the sofa, front windowsill, rocker, a kitchen chair where he could hide himself under the table, on top of the bureau, and even an open drawer, where he found a comfy nest of silky white. Padding, lonely and helpless, grieving (he knew something was off, and was waiting for the hit, for he knew it would come, and who it would come to). He tidied up a paw, left front and then the right; and drew up his favorite back leg to snuggle with, and was soon asleep.
Until–and here she was, his own mother. His father had left him flat on his twelfth birthday, less than a week ago, but it seemed like an age. And now it was just a little too quiet in his home. His mother didn’t even think to play the radio. He made his bed at the foot of hers, like always, where he could keep watch, but being who he was he starting sleeping on the other bed, the one he could have all to himself, flying off, if he heard but a whisper of steps. Even he knew that this bed was now what would be forbidden to him, as it had been, although sometimes he slept under it.
After one night lying brazen on top, the cat moved in, pleased to have, at last, his own spot, where he could bathe and sleep and stare and yawn in stately solitude.
Then he heard the key, and his Mumma’s tripping little heels. He leapt down, waiting, then whisked out, a mistake! Balling up, as he did, caught in the scissor-clamp of silk stocking legs, tumbling, tangled, and the sky now quaking over his head, as his mother came down.
Then he heard a cuss word, and one he knew, so he put his fat face close to hers, and licked it.
JEAN McGARRY is author of many novels and fiction collections, including Ocean State (Johns Hopkins University Press) and No Harm Done (Dalkey Archive Press). She is Elliott Coleman Professor in The Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University.
image: Pablo Picasso, Cat Devouring a Bird, 1939